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September 2018

Don’t buy that! How to grocery shop in an age of listeriosis

Written by Nathalie Leblond
Hygiene Specialists

Since the first reported cases of Listeriosis back in December 2017, the team at Initial have been following the unfolding story with a great deal of interest. I’ve written several blog posts on the subject to date, most recently at whether anything has changed in the industry to try and ensure that an outbreak of this magnitude never happens again.

However, according to a statement delivered to the press on Monday the 3rd September by Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, the Listeriosis outbreak is now officially over.  "No cases of listeria … have been identified since the first week of June 2018" said the Minister, "therefore, the conclusion is that the outbreak of listeriosis in South Africa is over. I'm here to announce to you officially that we no longer have a listeria outbreak in South Africa."

Because no new Listeria cases had been reported in the past three months, Motsoaledi said that processed meat products – such as polony, russians and viennas – were again considered safe for human consumption. And maybe they are safe for consumption, although I’d wager that it’s going to be a long time before consumer confidence in those products recovers completely.

The Minister also reiterated that while processed meat products may be safe for consumption, proper food safety is still paramount, because while the outbreak may be over, the disease is not completely gone.  

And that is the lesson that I hope we’ve ALL learned from the tragedy of 203 deaths: an awareness of just how seriously we need to take food safety, and how following instructions properly, like ‘heat thoroughly before eating’ could actually mean (at the risk of sounding overly dramatic) the difference between life or death.

We discussed some of the basic food safety precautions you should be taking in our first Listeriosis blog post: What you need to know, such as frequent hand washing and making sure that cutting boards, cutlery and crockery are cleaned properly, both before and after handling raw foods. And our most recent blog post - Food Safety First  - took a more in depth look at how good kitchen hygiene practices support food safety.

But what about actually buying food? For the last 6 months we’ve been avoiding RTE meat products, but now that they are back on the menu, are there any food safety precautions we should be taking from the point of purchase right through to consumption?

Let’s think about grocery shopping for a moment. This is the first step in providing safe and healthy food for your family, and it’s important to select, package and transport food in a way that keeps it safe for consumption.  An article on today.com lists the 10 Germiest things in the Supermarket and it’s probably no surprise that along with the trolley handle (touched by countless hands all day), the fresh produce aisle and the meat and seafood counters rank as some of the germiest spots in the shop.  

Some supermarket chains now offer antibacterial wipes at the entrance for the trolley handle, but if yours doesn’t, consider carrying a small bottle of hand sanitiser with you. If you are tempted to try any food samples in store, make sure you sanitise your hands first.  Make sure that you also give your hands a good wash when you get home, but also bear in mind that any produce that is not packaged - such as fruit and veg - and which you have touched, should also be washed to eliminate the risks of cross contamination. And remember to wash your reusable shopping bags regularly as they come into contact with all sorts of foodstuffs.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offer some tips for a safe shopping experience in their article on food shopping safety guidelines on eatright.org.

When choosing food, especially meat and seafood, at the supermarket, here are some tips on what to consider:

  • Inspect food packages: there should be no holes, tears or openings in food packages.
  • Frozen foods should be solid with no signs of thawing. Avoid packages containing ice crystals, as this is a sign the food has previously thawed.
  • Refrigerated foods should feel cold.
  • Check dairy and milk products - choose cartons and containers that are cold.
  • Be selective with fish and seafood, and check for proper refrigeration of fresh fish. Flesh should be shiny and firm, not separating from the bone, and the odour is fresh and mild, rather than overly "fishy". Packaged seafood should be well-packed in ice and that packages are tightly sealed and free of dents and tears.
  • When choosing meats and poultry, make sure packaging is tightly sealed and is very cold to the touch.
  • Choose packaged chicken that looks pink, not grey, and avoid any poultry that looks faded, has a strong odour, or feels tough or slimy.
  • Avoid any beef or pork that’s dark brown or discoloured, has a strong odour, or feels tough or slimy.
  • Avoid any meat, fish or poultry that’s in damaged, leaking, or torn packages, as it’s likely been exposed to the air and harmful bacteria.
  • Put raw meat, poultry and seafood in plastic bags before placing them in your trolley. This keeps them from leaking and dripping onto ready-to-eat foods such as bread or produce.

Another important tip for grocery shopping is to shop in order. By this, they mean:

  • Shop for non-perishable items first.
  • Then choose your refrigerated and frozen items.
  • Stop at the deli counter last, and make sure that you place deli meats near the other cold items in your grocery cart

By doing this you are ensuring that foods that should remain frozen or refrigerated are at room temperature for the shortest length of time. It follows that when you get home, unpacking should follow the reverse order, with deli, frozen and refrigerated items being put back into the fridge and freezer as soon as possible. Once that’s done, pack away non-perishable shopping.   

On the trip home, avoid putting perishable foods in a hot car boot, and rather travel with them in the car, which is likely to be cooler (especially if you have air-conditioning). And if you think you are going to take longer than half an hour to get home, consider bringing a cooler bag with ice bricks for perishable foods. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics the temperature of refrigerated food can go up 3 - 4 degrees Celsius on a typical trip home from the store. Perishable foods must be refrigerated within two hours and only one hour if it’s over 30°C outside.

Whilst we can’t promise that the food you buy from the supermarket is free of illness-causing bacteria and germs, we can promise that following these tips, combined with maintaining good hand hygiene practices at home, will go a long way in the fight to keep you and your family safe from foodborne illnesses.

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Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie Leblond

Nathalie is the Category Manager at Rentokil Initial, and has worked in the hygiene and pest control industry for 12 years. Although after 12 years cockroaches still have the power to terrify her, she has learnt countless ways to defeat germs both in the workplace and at home. She is a passionate advocate for Global Handwash Day and the health benefits that can be derived from regular handwashing and hygiene practices. When not contributing to the Initial blog, Nathalie is writing press releases for sister businesses, Rentokil and Ambius. You can find her on LinkedIn.

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